There’s a bumper sticker you see now and then that says, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” Civil and womens’ rights pioneer Pauli Murray would likely concur.
You can’t have progress without challenging conventions and making people uncomfortable. Murray strove hard to move human rights issues forward, ruffling more than a few feathers in some quarters.
“I don’t think anyone said, ‘Oh, she was such a nice lady,’” the Rev. Stuart Hoke said Tuesday at the annual celebration of Murray. The first black woman to become an Episcopal priest who was made a saint of the church in 2012 made inroads on so many fronts. “When you take up a cross and follow Jesus, conflict of some kind is inevitable,” Hoke pointed out.
Murray was an incredibly bright woman who had a lasting impact on issues of gender and race. She was gay, too, and while she did not talk openly about it during her life, it is part of her legacy, as well.
She was unafraid to wade into territory where she knew she would not be welcome.
In 1938, the Durham-raised Murray applied to UNC Chapel Hill for graduate school. She was denied. Later, she applied to Harvard Law School, only to be told she was the wrong gender for admission.
Far from having denials end her academic career, Murray went on to graduate from Howard University Law School and Yale Law School. She was determined. She had a finely honed sense of fairness. She was remarkable in so many ways, not the least of which was being so far out in front of the curve on social justice issues.
It is fortunate that some in Durham saw the historical importance of preserving the pieces of her legacy here. Barbara Lau, director of the Pauli Murray Project, has worked tirelessly as an advocate for preservation of Murray’s childhood home. The Pauli Murray Center for History and Social Justice, established last year, is focusing on the renovations, which are progressing.
The Pauli Murray Project is an important part of Durham, and continues the work that Murray began. The organization’s vision is to have a Durham community that works toward fairness and justice across lines of race, class, gender and sexual orientation.
Durham should be proud of being part of Murray’s legacy and celebrate her life’s work.
Lau, at the invitation of the Museum of the New South in Charlotte, also has developed an exhibit titled “Pauli Murray: Imp, Crusader, Dude, Priest” to helps share Murray’s legacy. “Courageous,” “accomplished” and “truth telling” are terms the exhibit uses to describe Murray.
The terms in the title of the exhibit itself all were words that Murray used to describe herself. It’s worth noting there’s nary a mention of a nice lady.